Now or Never

Authored by Bali Rai
Published by Scholastic

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There are plenty of classic children’s novels on the First and Second World Wars, but there has never been one like this. This is a story that has never been told but deserves to be celebrated and shared. Now or Never recounts the events surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation but through the eyes of an Indian soldier, Fazal Khan, who volunteered to be part of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. Early on Khan sees the parallels between the mules, which are used to transport supplies, and the men in his division. ‘We are beasts of burden, leading beasts of burden for King and Empire’.

The narrative is constantly interrupted by the aerial attacks by the Luftwaffe, and the reader sees how relentless these were. ‘Imagine being so worn out, so disorientated, that you stand in the open watching on, as death wails and caterwauls towards you like some demonic banshee, and you don’t even blink’.  The depth of language and the vivid imagery Rai creates is extraordinary.

In addition, conversations cover lots of important areas of historical knowledge: Cable Street, fascism, communism, Empire and the class system. In between the desperate attempts to survive and escape the attacks on Dunkirk, Rai gives the reader respite in dreams of life back in Rawalpindi, the spiced chicken cooked by Khan for the soldiers and the small acts of kindness by colleagues and strangers. Finally, we have closure at the end of the story and reading the Author Note at the end will have an even greater impact. Now or Never is the first in a series of gripping adventures that reflect the authentic, unsung stories of our past. From the beautiful foiled, embossed banner and book spine to the top-notch authors commissioned for the Voices series, this is one to watch.

I have thought long and hard about the age-appropriateness of Now or Never. For me, it sits well alongside other alternative perspectives on war like the animal’s perspective in Morpurgo’s War Horse or the Jewish boy’s experience in Gleitzman’s Once. Like these stories, I would use this as a class novel in Year 7, but only offer it as an independent read for readers in Y6 who would be able to cope with the relentless bleakness of some of the descriptions of war. So, an important and explosive text.

Shortlisted for the Little Rebels Award Shortlist 2020. You will find many award winning books in our book selections. Please visit our Bookshop or contact us, if you have specific requests.